Europe

Why Nudity Is a German Election Issue

Nostalgia for East Germany's widespread nudism highlights a powerful political tradition.

The politics of nudity.

Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg

There can't be many countries where a major political party's leader would campaign on a nude beach. But German politician Gregor Gysi, leader of Die Linke, the anti-capitalist party that is the third biggest in the current parliament, has done so this week to bemoan the declining popularity of naturism in his country. In doing so, he's tapped into a lingering east-west culture divide, and maybe a few extra votes.

Gysi's political career started in East Germany where he was something of a dissident within the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). In the 1980s, when Gysi was pushing for reform, the "free body culture," or FKK as it is known in Germany, was widespread in Communist East Germany, a politically repressed people's way of telling the world that they actually enjoyed freedom of a sort. In 1982, there were 40 official nude beaches in the Communist nation and lots of others that weren't mentioned in the state-published guidebook. 

Though the German nudist organization, DFK, still includes about 40,000 people in some 135 local societies, the numbers have been going down, and nude beaches are closing. It's noticeable in Berlin; some of the city's many lake-side beaches have given up their "textile-free" policies since I moved here in 2014.

In an interview on a nude beach (he wore trousers and a shirt), Gysi quoted a sexologist as telling him that West German males with no knowledge of the East's naturist culture spoiled it for many East German women, by arriving with their "erotic glances."

"But the women," Gysi said, "weren't trying to show themselves, they just wanted to be free for their own sake." Airing his nostalgia in an interview with Playboy, he also mentioned hotel investors who no longer wanted naked people on their beaches. "In some ways, the GDR was more prudish than the old Federal Republic," Gysi said of the former two Germanies. "But in others, it was more open."

Paradoxically, generational change is making it somewhat easier to sell "ostalgia," or pining for the old East German ways: Young people drawn to leftist ideals don't remember the uglier aspects of the Communist regime. Die Linke is on track to repeat or slightly improve on its 2013 performance in the September general election. And Gysi has picked a good selling point: The official acceptance of the FKK movement in East Germany only came as a result of stubborn public resistance.

FKK became popular in Weimar Germany, where it was linked to both nationalism and to social-democratic pacifism. The Nazis banned naturism in 1933 but relaxed the rules soon afterwards under pressure from influential party members and SS officers who argued there was nothing wrong with the natural beauty of the German body. The Communists banned it again in the 1950s: They hated both the old social-democratic and Nazi associations, and they followed the prudish Soviet line on anything even remotely sex-related. "The 'nudist unions' were a by-product of the disintegration of imperialism in the area of body culture and sports," the state sports organization declared in 1951. "As an expression of imperialist decadence, 'nudist unions' cannot be tolerated." By 1954, nude bathing was largely banned from Baltic beaches even if it didn't involve membership in any group.

In a rare example of how ordinary people could make their opinion matter in East Germany, the ban failed. Josie McLellan of the University of Bristol wrote in a 2007 paper:

The main reason for this was sustained civil disobedience on the part of East German citizens who found the policy ludicrous and refused to comply. Their tactics included not only continuing to swim and sunbathe in the nude but also deliberately subverting and ridiculing state attempts to enforce the ban.

Naked bathers would put ties around their necks to show police that they had something on. Rebel yells were heard as police approached: nudists had set up a warning system. Sometimes, patrols ran into groups of naked party and government officials.

East Germans also swamped the authorities with angry petitions arguing nudity was not dangerous to the socialist project. So in 1956, nude beaches were officially allowed, and though ad-hoc attempts to clear them out persisted for some years, it was clear that the naked people had won. FKK became an acceptable form of expressing individual freedom. By the time it collapsed, the East German regime had co-opted it. Official propaganda even pushed the nudist norm to the outside world as evidence of the country's progressiveness. 

West Germany, too, had a tradition of nudity that went back to the pre-Nazi nudist unions. But it was much less widespread and there were more rules around it than in the GDR, where nakedness was everywhere. 

The drop in FKK's popularity is probably due more to a growing Muslim population and the proliferation of high-resolution mobile phone cameras than to capitalist prudery and lasciviousness. In a changing world, it has been reduced to a niche that will never be as large as it was in a largely closed, homogeneous Communist country. 

But it would be a shame if Germany lost its rich tradition of collective action, which has done more than made nudism acceptable to the East German authorities: It also brought down the Berlin Wall. More recently, it has sustained Chancellor Angela Merkel's open door policy toward refugees (until public opinion shifted away from it) and led to the legislative acceptance of gay marriage. This largely leftist tradition is something to cherish at a time of political stasis; even if Die Linke's attempts to whitewash East Germany are transparently self-serving, it has a role in keeping the undercurrent of rough, informal democracy alive.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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